Saturday, September 8, 2007


You will be tempted to skip over this post because it has the word "moderation" in the title, and instead go looking for some juicy blog about extreme misbehavior.

You should resist that temptation, at least for a few paragraphs.

We tend to bristle at anything smelling like censorship or restraint. Moderation is contrary to the freedom that all artists crave, even when they have no important use for it.

In a recent post I quoted the war cry from the
Futurist Manifesto which ushered in the art of the 20th century:
We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks....Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry...To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action.... We want to demolish museums and libraries [and] fight morality... .
20th century art seemed to race through one extreme style after another:

Abstract Expressionism
Magic Realism
Color field
Post modernism

Each of these styles (along with many others in between) flashed and cooled after only a few years. Many of them were intellectually invigorating and fun. Very few of them were interested in moderation or the patient search for lasting value.

Those who focus on what is new and hot usually develop short attention spans. They lose patience for moderation, nuance and context. But the old masters recognized that-- in the end-- moderation is all there is. As Shakespeare exclaimed, everything is a matter of degree:

Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what dischord follows! Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores And make a sop of all this solid globe
In this painting by Vermeer, the girl's eyes and pearl earring really stand out, despite the fact that they are painted in quite moderate colors. The earring is not extremely white, nor is her eye extremely dark.

Both colors seize your attention because of their context. Vermeer has placed the light earring against a dark shadow and the dark eye against light skin. That's the way to achieve real highs and lows. In art, as in life, context is everything.

All of this brings us back to last week's post about moderating pornography. The metaphors of extremism are alluring, both in art and in sex. It is fun to contemplate a painting made up of nothing but highlights, or a state of perpetual ecstasy without all those "boring parts" in between. But as George Eliot warned, "all of us get our thoughts entangled in metaphors and act fatally on the strength of them." Pornographers and artists who need to chase novelty inevitably become colossal bores.

Those who say "I'll try anything once"
Seldom try anything twice
Or three times
Arriving late at the Gate of Dreams Worth Dying For.

---Carl Sandburg